Book Review – The Owl in Daylight by Tessa B. Dick
When I wrote my review of Voices From the Street, Philip K Dick’s last published novel (25+ years after his death), I said I was surprised to be reading a ‘new’ PKD book and that I found the matter ‘phildickian’ – that is, strange and entirely in keeping with the man, his work, and his life. How much greater my surprise is, then, to be reviewing The Owl in Daylight, PKD’s fabled and entirely unwritten final novel. When reviewing the long interview What if Our World is Their Heaven?, I discussed the plot Phil envisioned for Owl, which was to be, not his last book, but simply his next book. Now I hold The Owl in Daylight in hand and ponder the unlikely (and somewhat regrettable) circumstances that have caused this book to appear now, 27 or so years after PKD’s death.
The author of this book is, of course, PKD’s wife Tessa, and the publisher is not a mainstream house, but Amazon.com’s self publishing department, Create Space. All of this came (very recently) as a complete and utter surprise to me, as I had been following matters phildickian closely over the past decade or so, and had no inkling that Tessa Dick was about to publish, not one, but at least five or six books, including a memoir on PKD and that famous unwritten novel, The Owl in Daylight. It also seems that Tessa has run afoul of an organisation known as the Philip K Dick Trust (I’m not making this up) and that ‘they’ (a consortium run by PKD’s descendants, including, it seems, her own son) were threatening her with legal action over the use of the ‘Philip K Dick’ name and associated rights. It would appear that Tessa is now suing the PKD Trust in response over proceeds to some of the late author’s later works, most notably A Scanner Darkly. No, I’m really not making any of this up. It seems that Tessa B Dick’s The Owl in Daylight will be something of a collector’s item, given that only a limited number have been sold, and that there remains some threat of the book being withdrawn (as occurred with the memoir of another PKD relative, Anne Mini, whose book A Family Darkly was withdrawn before publication, apparently due to the ubiquituous PKD Trust).
‘But is The Owl in Daylight any good?’ I hear you ask. There was a part of me that was afraid to start reading, in case the words were awful, the plot plodding. But thankfully, Tessa has pulled it off : not only is The Owl in Daylight a fitting tribute to her late husband, but it’s actually a strong novel of its own accord and–wait for it– in the opinion of this humble reviewer, superior to PKD’s VALIS. I’m not so much a fan of VALIS anymore, as my review of more than a year ago will attest to. The Owl in Daylight reads much more like a direct sequel to that novel than The Divine Invasion ever did, although I am due to re-read that book too.
Owl concerns, for the most part, a hack composer by the name of Arthur Grimley. (Somewhere, probably on Tessa’s blog, she explains that the name Arthur is because he’s an artist, and Grimley as his is a grim situation.) Arthur longs to write serious music, but his trashy stuff pays the bills and ends up adorning various B-grade slasher films. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, not to read much of this as standing symbolically for PKD himself, and indeed there are many similarities between Arthur and a younger PKD, the young man who wrote “Roog!” and Solar Lottery. Grimley’s latest music is intended for the film “Bad Moon Rising,” a great title that Tessa incidentally seems to have used for another of her novels. This is the first of the similarities between VALIS and The Owl in Daylight.
I haven’t mentioned the Archons and the alien slugs, but that’s half the fun of the novel, so I won’t try to explain that in too much detail. Suffice to say that where in VALIS we had an ancient sattelite and a pink beam of light, here we have an alien implant and some ‘men in black.’ Early in the novel, Arthur loses consciousness for some unknown reason, which proves to be the beginning in a psychedelic and disorientating sequence of events that recalls PKD’s best work, namely Ubik, Martian Time-Slip, A Maze of Death and also the obscure Radio Free Albemuth (which students of PKD will recognise as the original ‘VALIS’ novel). Arthur recovers from his episode to some extent, and here we discover the extent of his similarities with the younger PKD – both worked in a record store, both were had a domineering mother, both had some fear of turning out to be homosexual.
Here I thought it prudent to mention one aspect of the novel I found a little perplexing. Arthur’s memories of his childhood appear to have taken place in roughly the same period as PKD’s own life (i.e. as a young adult in the early 1950s). And yet the older Arthur appears to inhabit our own times (there is even some brief mention of the global financial crisis), which is more than 50 years later. I certainly didn’t picture the older Arthur as being over seventy, so perhaps the author intended this discontinous sense of time, this fracture, as a clue to the fundamental unreality of time (as per VALIS – The Empire Never Ended etc) There’s even an old hobo holding up a sign that says precisely this early in the novel. I thought that this was a subtlety that might easily be missed by an unwary reader. In fact, I wonder what someone who hadn’t read VALIS and PKD’s other work would make of The Owl in Daylight.
I quite enjoyed the beginning section of the novel, but in Chapter Two the narrative really took off for me, and before I knew it I had read half the book. The plot is too phantasmagoric and shifting to describe in detail, but it includes elements such as: strange mathematical equations; a motorised wheelchair; alien slugs and a flying saucer; a theme park; an ersatz reality; the process of anamnesis and Dante’s Inferno. Here we learn of a young man named Tony and the woman he is fated to marry, Candy. Meanwhile, Art Grimley lies in a coma in the theme park.
By page 108, at the beginning of Chapter Six, we can no longer be sure what is real and what fake (like the famous ending of Ubik, in which Joe Chip realises that he may not have reached true reality after all). Tony’s narrative, a narrative that seems very much in keeping with PKD’s own life, is a delight to read, but the ‘alien slugs’ are eager to “anxious to accelerate the game” (page 112), setting the narrative into freefall again. Somewhere in here, Tony starts to look for his lost ‘Lorelei,’ who turns out to have a surprising double later in the story. The weakest part of the novel, to my mind, centre around the Ordeals which begin in Chapter Seven. While Tony battles through various ordeals (with a friend called Bobby) surgeons in our own times are preparing to operate on the tumour in Art Grimley’s head.
Things pick up again in the final third, when Art wakes from his coma to find that he now lives in a small apartment. His wife Edna tries to help him, but all he can say is something about the Plasmate (which the reader knows is the alien slug). Somewhere in here are the Archons, who are forever a step behind the sneaky slug. I couldn’t help but think of the Men in Black films hereabouts, and in general I thought the Archons could have been fleshed out better or gotten rid of entirely. On page 177 we are introduced to the character who forms the final piece of this novel’s puzzle – the madman Kelvin Waggle. PKD pretty much perfected the character of the idiot savant in a number of novels, from Raggle Gumm in Time Out of Joint, through Jack Isidore in Confessions of a Crap Artist, and finally a similar character whose named I have forogtten in The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. The character type was immortalised in the film Blade Runner, as Sebastian. Anyway, Tessa Dick deploys this character type to excellent effect here, in the final section of The Owl in Daylight.
It couldn’t be a VALIS novel without the appearance of Sophia (“the embodiment of God’s Holy Wisdom on Earth” – p 203), who turns out to be a cipher for Lorelei AND Angelica (the reader really needs to pay attention!). Sophia seems to represent the cool ‘feminine’ voice that guides and shapes the narrative, and finally helps Arthur to recover from his ordeal here at novel’s end. I’ve managed not to mention that Arthur has composed some beautiful ‘Golden Mean’ music while under influence of the alien slug, and that he and his wife now live partly on the proceeds of this music. This reminds me of PKD’s own ‘2-3-74’ experiences, which I’m sure the author had in mind here. Tony, Bobby and Candy even manage to make a late reappearance, but the novel’s final image, and one very true to PKD’s vision and especially the ‘note of humility’ he tended to end his novels on, is brilliant. I guess I shouldn’t spoil it, but suffice to say that Arthur and Kelvin Waggle finally meet, but with an inconclusive outcome. Then in the Appendix we discover just how similar the minds of these two characters are (both having been occupied, at different times, by the alien slug).
The Owl in Daylight isn’t a perfect novel by any means. The presentation is frankly a little sloppy in terms of typos and small inconsistencies (I counted at least 20-30 small errors), but there again the resemblance to the work of PKD himself is uncanny. This is a novel that demands a great deal of the reader in terms of piecing together various clues in order to make meaning of the overall narrative. But The Owl in Daylight actually has something that so many of PKD’s novels do have but NOT, in my opinion, VALIS: a ripping storyline. I found this to be a thoroughly entertaining read and I would highly recommend it to the legions of PKD fans around the world. On a more personal note, it seems that Tessa Dick has fallen on hard times of late and is living to some extent on the proceeds of her self-published novels. So before you think about picking up YET ANOTHER copy of Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, spare a thought for the great man’s widow and muse, Tessa Dick. You’ll be glad you did.